I_Origins_posterI can’t think of anyone in the movie industry that I admire more than actress, writer, and producer Brit Marling. At the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, she caused quite a stir with two well received indies that she co-wrote and starred in, Another Earth, directed by Mike Cahill, and The Sound of My Voice, directed by Zal Batmanglij. Since then, Marling has continued to make interesting choices that defy the career trajectory of most actresses her age. Marling, Cahill, and Batmanglij met as students at Georgetown University and have been working with each other on various projects for years. Last year, she co-wrote and starred in Batmanglij’s second feature, The East, a film about an anarchist group known for executing covert attacks upon major corporations that also featured Alexander Skarsgard and Ellen Page, and now she has teamed up again with Mike Cahill for his second film, I Origins, about two scientists exploring aspects of the human eye who happen upon a discovery that has huge implications for society as we know it. Marling has also appeared as an actress in Nicholas Jarecki’s Arbitrage with Richard Gere and Susan Sarandon and in Robert Redford’s The Company You Keep. She just completed a six-hour mini-series called Bablyon with director Danny Boyle. I was thrilled to sit down with Brit Marling again to discuss her new film, I Origins, and her thoughts about her career.

"I Origins" New York Screening - ArrivalsDanny Miller: You’ve worked on such a fascinating range of movies over the past few years but I was delighted to see you teamed up with Mike Cahill again. I loved Another Earth so much and I thought this film was just as thought-provoking.

Brit Marling: This was an idea that Mike had been talking about for years. He’s been kicking it around in different formats — initially it was going to be a story set much further in the future but then he decided to do this one as sort of a prequel. We were really excited about the idea of showing a husband and wife partnership that had a real equality to it. Usually, when you’re seeing a story from the male protagonist’s point of view, in this case Michael Pitt as Ian, the main character, the wife is sort of underwritten or just there to be sexy.

Even when she’s also a scientist.

Yeah, she’s especially underwritten in that case because they think, “Well, we made her a scientist so we don’t have to have her test or push him in any way. We gave her glasses, so it’s cool!”

Right. She’s wearing glasses so she’s clearly an intellectual.

Exactly. So in this film we were thinking, how do we show the kind of marriage that we would actually like to have in our lives where the two people spur each other on and know each other’s work so they can challenge and push each other? I love that my character urges her husband to go off in search of his former lover in India because it would help the work that they’re doing. He’s afraid to go but she encourages him to explore his grief and loss and to go for the science of it as well. Now that’s a solid relationship.

As you talk about it, it kind of evokes your relationships with Zal and Mike, even though you’re not married, in terms of the support you provide each other.

It’s true. That has really been one of the most profound things in my life. I got so lucky at 17 that I met these two artists whose work I really admire and that the three of us have encouraged each other and helped each other and challenged each other to do something that was really fucking impossible which was to start making movies and to believe that we could!

Your trio is very inspiring. It’s hard to believe that you and Mike were economics majors when you met.

Yeah, and Zal was an anthropology major — we really had no business doing this!

zal-brit-mikeIt’s such a cool collaboration. I can imagine future film students studying the three of you some day and how you helped and influenced each other’s work.

It’s so nice of you to notice any of that. I think it is different. Sean Durkin, Antonio Campos, and Josh Mond also have a collective like that going on and they really support each other and produce each other’s work and they help each other in the editing room. I think this idea is a bit of a generational shift. It’s fucking hard out there right now and if you’re going to make movies or do anything creative you really need to band together.

Especially if you’re intent on making choices that are not just about money or fame or career advancement.

Yeah. To believe that you can find something to say of value, you’ve got to have people around you who believe in you and urge you to keep going, even when you mess up or someone knocks you down. We did that for each other early on in a way that nobody else was doing for us.

Which also reminds me of the dynamic of the characters you and Michael Pitt play in this film. As scientists, they have plenty of “failures,” but that’s just part of the deal and they completely support each other in the work and the passion that they have for it.

Oh God, I love that you brought that up because I think it is like that in this work, too. You have to get pleasure out of the process, especially in filmmaking, because unlike a play where you have this cathartic emotional experience every night with the totality of a story, in film it’s so fragmented. There’s no complete moment. When are you supposed to have the orgasm? Watching it in a screening room at a film festival? I don’t think so.

Or, God forbid, reading the reviews—

Lord, that would kill you, you’d be dead in a year! I don’t read reviews at all but the good ones are probably worse than the bad ones because they make you need that kind of approval! I think that in film the real emotional climax is the collaboration with a group of people who agree to show up at the same time at the same place every day to wrestle out a story together.

There’s a line in this film that your character says that seemed so “you” I asked Mike Cahill if you ad-libbed it and he said you had! When Karen says, “Recognition makes me extremely nauseous.” Is the attention and fame inherent in your chosen career still a challenge for you?

(Laughs.) Yeah, that was me! Yes, it’s still a challenge but I think I’m clearer about it now than I’ve ever been before. I feel very clear about what it is that I want to do. I think part of growing up is finding the courage to be different and to make different choices and stick with them even if some of the people around you don’t agree. It can be hard because sometimes we live the lives that other people think should make us happy instead of the lives that would actually make us happy. And that’s probably because we don’t really spend the time thinking about what we really want.

I remember when we first talked two years ago, you were referring to the great freedom you had because you didn’t care about “having” a lot of stuff. I’m sure you may choose to have more overhead at this point in your life, like a house—

I don’t, actually! I hardly even have any furniture. People sit on my floor when they come over!

Does your outlook on your career and your life mean that you turn down a lot of projects that are sent your way?

I do tend to say no more than yes, it’s true. I don’t think I could get up every morning and go to set and be a good actor if I didn’t believe in the story. I didn’t know that about myself in the beginning. Sometimes I wish I had the ability to “fake it ‘til I make it” but I just don’t. I can only do the work if I believe that the story is somehow meaningful to me.

Which doesn’t necessarily mean that your time on every film set will be a great experience.

No, not at all. And I’m not saying that every film has to be “high-minded” — I’m just as interested in comedy as I am in drama, in big studio movies as much as small indie movies, it really doesn’t matter what it looks like, it just has to mean something to me.

As opposed to just doing it because you think it will help your career?

Right, or because you’re worried that you may never work again or people will forget you or you have to keep up with your peers.

Did you ever go through a period earlier in your career where you thought, “How dare I turn that film down — who the hell do I think I am?”

I definitely felt that at the beginning. But the funny thing is that the more you stick to your guns, the clearer it gets for you. You have to follow your gut. I just spent a long time working in London on this mini-series with Danny Boyle and it was an amazing experience. But now I’m feeling like I need to go home and hibernate for a while and write so that’s what I’m going to do. Unless some opportunity comes along where I feel I’m really going to learn something new about acting from a group of people who really challenge me, I have to take the time for myself and wrestle with my own ideas and see if I have something to offer. Even though, believe me, it’s hard to face that cursor blinking at you on the screen.

I think you’re such a great role model for girls in this culture since you’ve been able to navigate your career without ever having your beauty be a huge part of your identity. I mean, people notice it, of course — I was just talking to some women here at the hotel who are going to get glasses this weekend even though they don’t need them because of how great you looked in this film — but your looks have never defined you as a person or an actress.

Wait, wait, wait…what did you just say?

Oh yeah, some of the women in the hospitality suite were talking about getting glasses solely because of how you look in this film!

That story cannot be true.

It is, we just talked about it for 10 minutes. I even recommended a glasses store.  

(Laughs.) That is crazy! In this movie, Karen doesn’t give a shit what she looks like. We didn’t even do a no-makeup “look,” there’s actually no makeup. If you go to most directors and say, “I don’t want to wear makeup in this movie,” they’ll say, “Fine, but of course we’re going to put some foundation on you and curl your eyelashes and add a little lip gloss”—

Ha, like the famous shots of Elizabeth Taylor with “no makeup”—

Exactly! But in this case, I told Mike that I really didn’t want to wear any makeup at all, I wanted people to see all the flaws and imperfections. I wanted the dark circles under the eyes to show and for her hair to get all greasy. Mike was thrilled and said, “Yeah, and let’s put mustard on her sweatshirt and give her cargo pants!” That’s the lovely thing about being with a partner that you trust so much. Mike is always going to double-down on your bet. That is so fucking rare in this business.


It must be a relief not to have some studio person coming in and freaking out about things like that.

Oh, it just wouldn’t happen if there were a studio person there! They would be like, “What are you talking about? This is how we’re planning to sell the movie! A little red lipstick and she’s going to be ‘sexy lab girl’ because sex sells!” But then she wouldn’t actually be having sex in the movie, just the “promise” of intimacy that you never see on screen because that would be too much!

Is this something that you’ve been consciously fighting against since you started acting? Can you imagine playing a character who really uses her looks and sexuality?

Oh, definitely, I want to do that! Even this project that Danny and I just did, she’s definitely a girl who uses it — she wears this pencil skirt and heels and she’ll come on to people in the office who she wants something from. She definitely wields her sexuality in an interesting way, almost like a weapon. I’m very interested in the idea of female characters who are really in their bodies, women who are self-possessed and in control of their sexuality in a deeply feminine way. Older French women are often like this.

Because they’re allowed to be! The cultural differences are so interesting. In France, Isabelle Huppert at 60 is still considered sexually appealing.

She’s a perfect example. Just gorgeous.

And yet here in this country we have these ridiculous articles like that one that came out last week in Esquire about women who are 42 and…gasp!…still attractive!  

Oh my God, you’re kidding me! I didn’t see that.

Oh yeah, everyone was talking about it last week. The good news is that I think it really backfired.

That really breaks my heart. 42 and still attractive? Are you supposed to be put out to pasture by the time you’re 42?

According to some people, yes. You’d be such a good person to write articles about women and sexuality in film. Can you get on that this weekend?

For you, I will!

I Origins, released by Fox Searchlight, opens on June 18 in Los Angeles and New York and will be opening in other cities in the coming weeks.